Joel Litvinoff would probably be the first to admit that he’s the sun around which the entire Litvinoff clan revolves. Charismatic, egocentric, a celebrity among the celebrities of the left thanks to his lifelong crusade to defend downtrodden and politically disadvantaged legal clients, Joel is the powerful center of a dynamic if somewhat dysfunctional family.
That is, until a courtroom stroke fells the mighty Joel Litvinoff minutes before opening arguments in his latest high-profile case. Suddenly, as a now frail-looking Joel lies in a coma, it’s as if the sun has gone out, and the rest of the Litvinoffs find themselves cast out of their customary orbits.
There’s Lenny, Joel’s youngest child, adopted at age seven when his birth mother was arrested for revolutionary activities. Since then, Lenny has frustrated his adoptive parents to no end, participating in a variety of self-destructive activities, from drug use to shoplifting. It’s not that Joel and his wife Audrey are opposed to defiant activity: “Joel would not have minded --- or at least not have minded so much --- had Lenny ever put his rebellious impulses to some principled use: run away to join the Sandinistas, say, or vandalized U.S. Army recruiting offices.” Lenny’s damaging behaviors, however, remain firmly apolitical --- and seem to be spiraling out of control in the weeks after Joe’s stroke.
Then there’s Rosa, raised by her parents to be a good Marxist but having second thoughts after returning to the U.S., disillusioned after living for several years in Cuba. Dissatisfied by her job working with inner-city youth, Rosa finds herself inexplicably drawn to Orthodox Judaism, dismaying and angering her vehemently antitheist parents.
And there’s Karla, a social worker who wants to hold strong convictions but secretly loathes herself for her weakness when it comes to food. Her union organizer husband desperately wants a child, fantasizing about recreating his own idyllic suburban upbringing, but the fertilely challenged Karla finds herself wondering, especially in the absence of appropriately nurturing parental figures, just what is the point of having a child.
Finally, there’s Audrey, Joel’s wife. Brutally honest (or sometimes just brutal), Audrey’s caustic observations of the world constantly challenge, humiliate and infuriate her children: “Her mother was always congratulating herself on her audacious honesty, her willingness to express what everyone else was thinking. But no one…actually shared Audrey’s ugly view of the world. It was not the truth of her observations that made people laugh, but their unfairness, their surreal cruelty.”
Not surprisingly, Joel’s absence --- especially when she discovers that he was hiding the existence of an illegitimate child --- forces Audrey to confront her own acerbic defense mechanisms and what they might be covering up: “Her temper…had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.” Now, although luminaries from Judy Collins to Jesse Jackson pay homage in Joel’s hospital room, Audrey finds herself a revolutionary without a cause, an unmitigated ball of rage without an appropriate target.
Zoë Heller, who wrote the novel on which the award-winning film Notes on a Scandal was based, has become known for her keen observation, piercing satire and intriguing depictions of fascinating but ultimately unlikable characters. In this vein, Heller’s characterization of Audrey Litvinoff is one of the most memorable in recent years. Audrey is rarely sympathetic, often outright nasty, but always intriguing. Likewise, Heller’s cutting depiction of the political ultra-left’s congratulatory self-righteousness and of the aimless peregrinations of their children results in a satirical tour de force.
THE BELIEVERS is a stunning family drama, a biting comedy and a political commentary rolled into one, giving readers much to discuss --- and a whole lot to believe in.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010